The fu­ture of your liv­ing room

How 8K, 360-de­gree sound and VR will take home en­ter­tain­ment to the next di­men­sion

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The liv­ing room has long been the heart of our house­holds. Since the 1960s, it’s been the place we’ve gath­ered with our fam­ily and friends around a TV screen, bond­ing over a sin­gle com­mon in­ter­est – en­ter­tain­ment.

Things have changed a lot in that time. Pic­ture qual­ity has been con­stantly im­prov­ing, sound ca­pa­bil­i­ties have ex­panded – even the con­tent we watch has had to adapt. But take a glimpse into the fu­ture of home cinema, and we could be about to see its big­gest changes yet.

ON THE BIG SCREEN

Part of that comes down to some­thing quite sim­ple: af­ford­abil­ity. Flat-screen TVs have come down in price dra­mat­i­cally dur­ing their 20 years in mod­ern pro­duc­tion, which has meant the screen sizes we can af­ford to buy have got big­ger.

Just five years ago, al­most 90% of TVs sold in the UK were less than 43in in size. Mar­ket an­a­lysts NPD say that 23% are now 55in or big­ger, with this num­ber ex­pected to in­crease fur­ther by the end of the decade.

A quick look at the screen sizes man­u­fac­tur­ers are fo­cus­ing on also tells a story of a big-screened fu­ture.

Only five of Sam­sung’s 16-strong 2017 TV range of­fer a screen size be­low 49in. If you want a 4K set, that drops to just two, and it’s a sim­i­lar story across the rest of the in­dus­try.

“We’re cer­tainly see­ing a trend to­wards big­ger screens, with par­tic­u­lar growth in 55in and 65in screen sizes,” says the vi­sion buyer for John Lewis, John Kemp­ner.

“We’ve also seen 4K UHD be­come a min­i­mum re­quire­ment for these big­ger screens, too. When stan­dard­def­i­ni­tion con­tent was the norm, the im­age qual­ity wasn’t good enough to go this big. But beau­ti­ful con­tent just looks bet­ter, big­ger.”

Of course, the prob­lem with this is the amount of space we’re now hav­ing to find in our rooms for some­thing that isn’t al­ways in use.

More than ever, TV man­u­fac­tur­ers are at­tempt­ing to soften this blow us­ing de­sign. LG’s flag­ship Wall­pa­per screens are just 2.57mm thin and at­tach to your wall us­ing mag­nets, while Sam­sung’s Frame TV ac­tu­ally looks like a pic­ture on the wall – even dis­play­ing a se­lec­tion of art when it’s not be­ing used.

How­ever, Paul White, Euro­pean prod­uct man­ager for Epson, thinks projectors could well take ad­van­tage of this sit­u­a­tion.

“The prob­lem with TVs get­ting big­ger is that when they’re off, they’re a large black rec­tan­gle that take up a big chunk of your liv­ing room. That’s dif­fi­cult to hide and hard to get away from, be­cause it’s a per­ma­nent fix­ture.

“I know a lot of TV man­u­fac­tur­ers are try­ing to find ways to help TVs blend in through their de­sign, but one ad­van­tage of projectors is they can eas­ily be unplugged and put away, so it doesn’t have to be on show all the time.”

White adds: “The other big ad­van­tage of a pro­jec­tor is cost per inch. Once you buy your TV, that’s the size you’re stuck with. With a pro­jec­tor, you can have a 65in im­age for TV and go up to a 300in im­age for sports – you don’t have to buy any­thing else.”

PRO­JEC­TOR SEAT

Pro­jec­tor tech­nol­ogy has long had a fight on its hands com­pared to the seem­ingly sim­pler setup of­fered by tele­vi­sions, but White says that is start­ing to change.

“Laser tech­nol­ogy in projectors is cur­rently only avail­able in very high-end projectors, but it will fil­ter down. This of­fers in­stant power on and off, so it’s more like a TV, and of­fers three or four times the life­time of a lamp-based pro­jec­tor, too, so it’s much more con­ve­nient,” he ex­plains.

“How­ever, the most in­ter­est­ing trend in projectors right now is ul­tra-short throw pro­jec­tion. It’s re­ally gain­ing ground and cer­tainly seems to be where the in­dus­try is head­ing.”

“ONE AD­VAN­TAGE OF PROJECTORS IS THEY CAN EAS­ILY BE UNPLUGGED AND PUT AWAY”

An ul­tra-short throw pro­jec­tor has ben­e­fits over stan­dard pro­jec­tion since you can place it very close to the wall for fewer in­stal­la­tion headaches, and still get a very large im­age.

It’s only been in the past cou­ple of years that we’ve seen such tech­nol­ogy be­com­ing avail­able in the con­sumer mar­ket, with the 4K HDR Sony VPL-VZ1000ES among the most ad­vanced cur­rently avail­able.

It’s not Sony’s first punt at the tech­nol­ogy though, with its first at­tempt com­ing 18 months pre­vi­ously. Even in that short amount of time, Sony has man­aged to re­duce the pro­jec­tor’s phys­i­cal size by 40% and more than halve its price, show­ing just how quickly things are mov­ing.

Thomas Issa, Sony’s home cinema prod­uct man­ager for Eu­rope, thinks this sort of pro­jec­tion may well be the an­swer for peo­ple want­ing big­ger im­ages with­out the clut­ter.

“The VPL-VZ1000ES can sit al­most un­no­tice­able in your home, just six inches from your wall, and yet of­fer the big im­ages that projectors are known for, with the ease of use that keeps peo­ple buy­ing TVs.

“It is ex­pen­sive, but prices will come down. In 18 months, we’ve been able to bring the price down from £45,000 to £20,000. It’ll take time to get it down fur­ther, but I be­lieve we will get there.”

WHAT’S ON NEXT

Plenty of talk about how we’ll watch TV then, but what about what we’ll be watch­ing? Over the past five years, the in­dus­try has been abuzz with talk of 4K – a res­o­lu­tion that of­fers four times the pix­els of full HD – but only re­cently has the breadth of con­tent come along to re­ally make it worth­while.

And yet the in­dus­try is al­ready look­ing ahead to 8K, with Ja­pan an­nounc­ing plans to broad­cast the 2020 Olympics in the for­mat.

“One thing is for sure,” Issa says. “The big­ger the screens are, the more res­o­lu­tion you need. Of course, when you’re us­ing 55in and 65in screens, 4K is great, but at 120in, you will see a dif­fer­ence with 8K.

“I be­lieve the in­dus­try will get to a point where we see it in our homes, but it will take a lot of time. We’re only just see­ing the real ben­e­fits of 4K, and that’s five years after it launched.

“I as­sume 8K will be sim­i­lar – we’ll see the first con­sumer 8K de­vices in a few years but then the con­tent will fol­low later, with up­scal­ing tech­nol­ogy to bridge the gap.”

The con­tent we watch at home is chang­ing, too – not just from a qual­ity per­spec­tive, but how we watch it. Video-on-de­mand ser­vices such as Net­flix and Ama­zon Video are boom­ing, com­ple­ment­ing more tra­di­tional TV pro­gram­ming, while the trend for sec­ond screens sees over 70% of us us­ing an­other de­vice such as a tablet or smart­phone to sup­ple­ment what we’re see­ing on our TV.

RE­AL­ITY TV

But there’s some­thing big­ger on the hori­zon. Rather like 4K, vir­tual re­al­ity (VR) is some­thing that’s been gain­ing ground in the past few years, and with both avail­abil­ity and con­tent now ramp­ing up, it’s be­com­ing a real at-home con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence.

A lot of the fo­cus is cur­rently on gam­ing, but it seems there is a real po­ten­tial for it in home cinema too.

“The home en­ter­tain­ment of the fu­ture isn’t go­ing to be as we know it at the mo­ment,” says Dave Black, co­founder of Mixed Im­mer­sion, a Lon­don-based stu­dio de­liv­er­ing 3D sound to VR ex­pe­ri­ences.

“It’s too lin­ear, too 2D. Im­mer­sive, emo­tive ex­pe­ri­ences like those of­fered by VR are the fu­ture for home cinema, ab­so­lutely. Steven Spiel­berg, Ri­d­ley Scott, Jon Favreau – all these big-name di­rec­tors are go­ing mad for VR be­cause it im­merses their au­di­ences like noth­ing else. If this is where we are now, imag­ine where we’ll be in five years’ time.

“It’s a new chal­lenge for film mak­ers too – to work out how to tell a story in a 360º en­vi­ron­ment, when there are no cuts. Ev­ery­thing is a con­tin­ual bit of footage. It there­fore re­lies on clever sto­ry­telling and great script­ing to keep your fo­cus where it needs to be, while still giv­ing you the free­dom to ex­plore your en­vi­ron­ment. It’s like im­mer­sive the­atre but in a movie for­mat.”

Al­ready some of the big­gest VR man­u­fac­tur­ers are dip­ping their toes into VR cinema. For ex­am­ple, HTC Vive of­fers Vive Video, an in-house app that al­lows you to watch both 180º and 360º videos us­ing your Vive head­set.

“WE’RE ONLY JUST SEE­ING THE REAL BEN­E­FITS OF 4K, AND THAT’S FIVE YEARS AFTER IT LAUNCHED”

The for­mer cre­ates a ‘big screen’ ef­fect just like be­ing at the cinema, but it’s the lat­ter in which HTC pre­dicts big growth over the next few years.

“All the ma­jor Hol­ly­wood film stu­dios are ex­per­i­ment­ing with im­mer­sive film mak­ing, and as the in­stalled base of VR head­sets such as Vive grows, more con­tent creators will in­vest larger bud­gets to serve the emerg­ing mar­ket,” says Drew Bam­ford, head of HTC Cre­ative Labs.

“From a tech­ni­cal stand­point, the next big break­through will be high­fi­delity vol­u­met­ric cap­ture of mov­ing con­tent [the cap­tur­ing of a VR space by dozens of cam­eras so you can move in and around it, rather than just view it in 360º].

“The best way to cre­ate the il­lu­sion of true pres­ence in a vir­tual world is to ren­der 3D ob­jects and scenes in real-time from the user’s per­spec­tive. To­day, build­ing this kind of con­tent re­quires com­plex tools and pro­cesses, and a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment of time and ef­fort.

“When this ca­pa­bil­ity be­comes more wide­spread, the video mar­ket will leap past our cur­rent of­fer­ing of 360º spher­i­cal con­tent to fully im­mer­sive di­men­sional con­tent, in which users will be able to walk around and in­ter­act. That will likely be the in­flec­tion point that sets VR cinema on an ex­po­nen­tial growth curve.”

But could we ever see a time that a VR head­set re­places our TV? Mixed Im­mer­sion’s Black doesn’t think so.

“Two hours in a head­set watch­ing a movie prob­a­bly isn’t go­ing to hap­pen. Most VR ex­pe­ri­ences are 10 to 20 min­utes long, and that’s about right. Be­cause you’re ac­tu­ally in the en­vi­ron­ment, it’s not some­thing you can switch off from, so it’s much more labour-in­ten­sive for the brain, and I think a full movie of that would be quite tir­ing. I see it as much more of a com­ple­men­tary ex­pe­ri­ence, a bit like bonus con­tent.”

SPORT­ING LIFE

While the idea of VR in tra­di­tional movie en­vi­ron­ments is gath­er­ing trac­tion, BT Sport is one of the first broad­cast­ers to con­sider the po­ten­tial of VR to sup­ple­ment a live broad­cast. Not only was its broad­cast of the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal shown in 4K HDR for the first time in 2017, but it also of­fered added VR con­tent for users to ex­plore, too.

“VR is about be­ing there and feel­ing part of it,” says Jamie Hind­haugh, COO of BT TV.

“We’ve been run­ning tri­als in it for about nine months, and I think we’re now of­fer­ing some­thing that’s re­ally great. The im­por­tant thing is cu­ra­tion. A 360º cam­era has a great nov­elty fac­tor for about two min­utes, but as broad­cast­ers, we need to tell the story. For the fi­nal, we had 12 VR cam­eras to switch be­tween, with live VR graph­ics and a sep­a­rate VR com­men­tary.

“Some peo­ple will watch the whole game that way, but I see VR as be­ing about the high­lights and key mo­ments. To re­play a goal up close, get a closer look at the crowd’s re­ac­tion or an ar­gu­ment on the bench. We’ve had a great re­ac­tion to it so far and it’s some­thing we hope to build into our dig­i­tal video of­fer­ing more and more go­ing for­ward.”

But Hind­haugh be­lieves that good au­dio to sup­port great im­ages also plays a big part in the over­all view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I think sound is a for­got­ten medium in broad­cast. It’s been 10 years since 5.1 sur­round sound came out and ev­ery­one has spent the time since con­cen­trat­ing on pic­ture,” he says.

“We know from our re­search that your view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is en­hanced dra­mat­i­cally by sound, so we’ve also been work­ing closely with Dolby to de­liver 360º Dolby At­mos sound in a live en­vi­ron­ment, to re­ally bring the at­mos­phere of the game and the sta­dium into your home.

“With re­gards to in­no­va­tion, it’s been one of the proud­est things we’ve done. We’re the only broad­caster do­ing it right now, but I re­ally hope more will fol­low suit. When you com­bine it with 4K HDR pic­tures and a VR of­fer­ing on the side, it makes for a re­ally fan­tas­tic, truly im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence.”

STORY TIME

It cer­tainly seems that home cinema has some big changes ahead of it over the next few years, but while the in­no­va­tion that’s hap­pen­ing in­dus­try­wide is striv­ing to de­liver new ex­pe­ri­ences we’ve never seen be­fore, the idea at its core re­mains the same.

As Black ex­plains: “Home cinema is sim­ply about telling sto­ries in the best way pos­si­ble. It’s al­ways been about cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment in which you can switch off from the out­side world and en­joy what’s hap­pen­ing in front of you. Soon, that could also be what’s hap­pen­ing above, be­hind and to the side of you, too.”

TOP: Sony’s lat­est ul­tra-short throw pro­jec­tor can dis­play a huge im­age from a very short dis­tance…

ABOVE: …but at £20,000, the VPL-VZ1000ES doesn’t come cheap

ABOVE/TOP: HTC’s Vive now lets you view 180º and 360º VR videos on your head­set

TOP: The big film stu­dios are in­creas­ingly us­ing VR in movies

ABOVE/BE­LOW:

BT added VR con­tent for this year’s Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal

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